November 2nd this year was the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. Recognized and supported by the United Nations, it is observed annually in the hope that it will focus attention on a global problem. The harassment and killing of journalists has made the exercise of press freedom and free expression dangerous, and democratic discourse difficult if not impossible in many countries including the Philippines.
Because most of those responsible have escaped punishment, the killings are continuing. Some 200 cases worldwide are still unresolved. These crimes have instilled among many journalists the fear that unless they report in a manner acceptable to the powerful few who have a stake in favorable publicity, their lives will be at risk.
The murder of journalists because of what they said over radio or television, or wrote in a newspaper column or online news site, is a form of subsequent punishment. The killings themselves are a form of prior restraint; in fear of their lives, some practitioners censor themselves. Killing journalists is the worst form of press censorship.
Over the last three years, the Global Impunity Index of the New York-based press freedom watch group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has ranked the Philippines fifth among those countries where most of the killers of journalists have neither been punished nor even brought to court. The failed African state of Somalia is first.
India, Russia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria are among the other countries where the killers of journalists have been getting away with murder. But the countries with the worst records after Somalia are Syria at 2nd place; Iraq, 3rd; South Sudan, 4th; the Philippines, 5th; Afghanistan, 6th; Mexico, 7th; Colombia, 8th; Pakistan, 9th; and Brazil, 10th.
Supposedly a democratic country that’s officially at peace, the Philippines is in the same company as failed states and countries that are either at war or in turmoil. Part of the reason is that 10 years ago, on Nov. 23, 2009, the worst attack on journalists in history occurred in this country when 32 journalists and media workers were killed in a single incident in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province. Although a verdict is supposedly forthcoming this November, the trial of some of the suspected masterminds and those who did the actual killing is, as of this writing, still ongoing nine years after it began in 2010.
Additionally, however, some 40 other Philippine cases over the last 10 years are still unresolved, while others have either been dismissed or downgraded from murder to homicide. Only 14 cases out of the 165 since 1986 have been concluded, and only partially. Only the hired killers — many of them police and military personnel as well as paramilitaries in the pay of local warlords — have been convicted, without the masterminds ever being tried. In the Ampatuan Massacre trial itself, one of the few principals who had ever been charged, Andal Ampatuan, died in detention.
What’s evident is that the demonstration effect of most of the killers’ escaping punishment emboldens those who want to silence journalists. Thirteen journalists have been killed since 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power. The killings have continued despite Mr. Duterte’s creation in 2017 of the Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFOMS). And practically on the eve of the International Day to End Impunity, another journalist was seriously wounded in a shooting attack in Davao, Mr. Duterte’s home city.
But calling journalists names and insisting that those killed were corrupt also encourage among the citizenry the suspicion that far from being assets, journalists are liabilities whose absence would matter little to their lives and could even somehow make them better. It helps explain why, in many communities, residents merely shrug off the harassment and killing of journalists.
Although a mistaken assumption bolstered by the current regime and its accomplices’ frequent attacks on the independent press, the sense that journalists and the press are an unnecessary burden on society is consistent with the decline of public trust in the press. Its diminishing credibility is due to, among other reasons, allegations of corruption and bias, and the failure of much of the media to provide the information and analysis the public needs to understand what is happening in this country and the rest of the world. And yet, public support for the work journalists do and outrage at the attacks against them would be the most helpful in stopping, or at least reducing the number of, the killings.
But what makes public support for journalists problematic are certain realities in the complex world of the Philippine press and media. Every honest journalist will admit that press corruption does exist, but that its extent and costs are often exaggerated. Studies have been done on the problem, and efforts made to minimize if not eliminate it. There is a Philippine Journalists’ Code of Ethics that practitioners are encouraged to observe. Various groups also hold seminars and workshops on ethics and ethical issues, in addition to Commission on Higher Education (CHED)-mandated courses on ethics in journalism schools across the country. Corruption and other problems nevertheless persist. Because thought to be more widespread than they really are, they are often thrown at the faces of journalists to justify public mistrust and even physical and verbal attacks against them as well as censorship, being banned from coverage, and criminal libel suits.
Accusations of bias are at least partly accurate, and in some cases part of the corruption problem. Some practitioners in the pay of various interests do report in a way favorable to their patrons despite what the facts say. As a result, many people presume that all journalists are either acting on behalf of certain interests, and/or reporting in support of those groups, personalities or issues they favor, again regardless of what the facts say.
But while ethical and professional issues do affect press performance, they do not excuse censorship, harassments or killings. It’s not just because one death is one too many. It is also because journalism is among those human enterprises that provide the information human beings cannot do without if they are to understand the world and what’s happening around them.
Obviously, however, public appreciation and informed criticism of what the press is doing has to be encouraged. The citizenry has to be familiar with the role, values, and standards of journalism. Media literacy has long been proposed as a subject in schools, and is supposedly already being taught at the secondary level.
It is teaching the values and standards of journalism as a public service, as well as the political and economic factors that can affect how the news is presented and interpreted, that should take precedence in any media literacy program. But what passes for such courses in the schools has mostly been focused on such skills as video production and news writing.
In addition to the development of media literacy programs, journalists must themselves address the problems of their calling and improve its practice by rigorously observing its ethical and professional standards. Only a public that understands and appreciates the fact that the press is indispensable to providing the accurate and fair information an authentic democracy needs, and is convinced that it is doing so, can provide the protection that reporters, opinion writers, and editors need from those who would silence them. If ending impunity began with journalists themselves, public outrage over the killings and support for what they do would follow.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).